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Daily News Blog

20
Dec

USDA Sits on Organic Board Recommendation to Eliminate Unintended Incentive to Convert Native Ecosystems to Organic Production

(Beyond Pesticides, December 20, 2019) Organic advocates are raising the alarm on what may be an unintended consequence of a provision in the National Organic Standards (NOS), the rules that govern certified organic agricultural production. The concern is that one National Organic Program (NOP) requirement for organic certification — a three-year waiting period during which land must be free of disallowed substances — is actually incentivizing the conversion of critical ecosystems, and fueling deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Conversions of native landscapes to working organic land to date include losses of: a California forest, Colorado prairies, a New Mexico wetland, and native sagebrush lands in Washington and Oregon. The Wild Farm Alliance has pointed out that, “These areas, that were once delivering critical ecosystem services and providing essential habitat for wildlife, are no longer performing the same functions and [it] would take hundreds of years to reverse the damage.”

No doubt this development was neither the intention of the NOP rule, nor an anticipated byproduct. But as Civil Eats notes, “USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] organic regulations mandate that farmers must ‘maintain or improve the natural resources’ on their farms, but there is no written requirement that addresses the natural resources that existed before the farm was established. . . . In some places, that three-year transition — in which the farm often has greater costs and sees a drop in yields — has essentially created an unwritten economic incentive to clear untouched ecosystems. In other words, if land that has never been farmed can be certified right away, it’s more profitable to farm that than to wait three years.” Such important native ecosystems will likely need the public’s help to protect them from such conversions.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was created by Congress via the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). The NOSB is a panel of 15 stakeholder members — from agricultural, environmental advocacy, organic certification, organic retail, food processing, and environmental science sectors — who operate in an advisory capacity to the USDA’S NOP. The NOSB is expected to make recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products; it also has some responsibilities related to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances in organic agriculture.

OFPA, as noted in the revised NOSB recommendation, “Include[s] a clear bias towards protection of the natural resources present on an organic operation, including the physical, hydrological, and biological features of the farm. The soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife must be maintained or improved by the organic operator through production practices implemented in accordance with the Act and Regulations. This bias towards ecosystem preservation is also found within the organic marketplace with consumer expectations that organic farms and ranches will be examples of excellent land stewardship.” Conversion of native ecosystems, via the “loophole” incentive of the NOP “three year” rule, clearly counters the intent of the organic label.

The NOSB has paid attention to this issue since 2009, and has worked to remedy the three-year loophole, particularly in the past few years, after the Wild Farm Alliance began advocating for the NOSB to be more muscular on the problem. The Wild Farm Alliance advocated for a rule that would not limit the growth of organic agriculture, but that would, instead, redirect growth to the transition of conventionally, chemically managed land. The alliance also maintained that it is unfair to organic producers who have waited three years to transition land to have to compete with those farmers who convert native ecosystems overnight.

Ultimately, the board proposed a revision stipulating that if any land that included native ecosystems were cleared for agricultural production, that land would be ineligible for organic certification for a 10-year period — a much longer wait than the current three years. The aim was to disincentivize the practice of native ecosystem land conversion.

Many public comments and nonprofit advocates supported the recommendation on the principle that organic production practices ought not destroy native ecosystems. However, some organic farmers, as well as the Organic Trade Association and Stonyfield Organic, a large organic food producer, were concerned that this would inappropriately impact some organic producers — especially in the Northeast U.S. In that region, organic farms tend to be small-to-medium-sized operations, some of which encompass forested lands that were once in production, but which have grown back. (In fact, according to a history of New England agriculture and economy, approximately 90% of New England in the mid-19th century was cleared and in agricultural production; a century and a half later, much of that land had been returned to a wooded state.)

Britt Lundgren of Stonyfield said, at the Spring 2018 NOSB meeting, “These farmers are not choosing to log land because the conversion period is faster; it’s the only land that is available for them to expand onto. The primary threat to the health of native ecosystems in the Northeast is not agriculture. It’s development. . . . If organic agriculture is going to remain a viable business in the Northeast in the face of immense development pressure, organic farms need to be able to expand in the most efficient way.”

Beyond Pesticides made comments in March of 2018 on the proposal, including: “Despite efforts of organic farmers to build and protect biodiversity, it is unlikely that the organic farm will achieve the same level of biodiversity and ecological resilience as the original ecosystem. On the other hand, the conversion of conventional, chemical-intensive agriculture to organic agriculture provides huge benefits to biodiversity through both the absence of toxic inputs and positive measures to increase biodiversity in soil-based systems that are required by OFPA or its regulations. Therefore, Beyond Pesticides supports efforts by the NOSB to eliminate incentives to convert high-value native land to organic production, as well as to increase incentives to convert chemical-intensive farmland to organic production.”

It also supported the 10-year period, and recommended, re: greater specificity about native ecosystems, this definition: “Native ecosystems can be recognized in the field as retaining both dominant and characteristic plant species as described by established classifications of natural and semi-natural vegetation. These will tend to be on lands that have not been previously cultivated, cleared, drained, or otherwise irrevocably altered. However, they could include areas that had been substantially altered over 50–100 years ago, but have since recovered expected plant species composition and structure.”

The NOSB then responded to the variety of feedback it received by updating the proposed rule’s language to define “native ecosystems” more specifically; the board believes this will mean the 10-year waiting period would not apply to farmers in such situations who are looking to expand their productive acreage. In May 2018, the NOSB approved (nearly unanimously) the revised, formal liminating the Incentive to Convert Native Ecosystems to Organic Production recommendation. The Wild Farm Alliance supported this revision, as it wrote in its issue brief on the matter.

Typically, once the NOSB has made a recommendation, the NOP puts it on the rulemaking agenda, develops a rule proposal on the basis of the recommendation, solicit public comment, and then develop a final rule. Yet the NOP has taken no action to bring the recommendation into its rulemaking process. This is unfortunately not surprising in the era of the Trump administration, which has been marked by broad efforts to reduce, stall, and sometimes ignore regulation in and across agencies. The USDA is no different in this regard — particularly with Sonny Perdue at the helm of USDA. (He has been criticized by scientists, environmental and health advocates, and small farmers for being anti-science and being far too cozy with industrial interests.)

As noted, public pressure on the USDA may help push NOP to “do its duty” and bring the NOSB recommendation forward to the rulemaking agenda. This is a critical step in protecting at-risk, and nearly irretrievable, native ecosystems. Stay current with advocacy and action on issues in organics through Beyond Pesticides coverage of organics and keeping organic strong.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: https://civileats.com/2019/12/16/does-a-loophole-in-organic-standards-encourage-deforestation/

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